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White Sands Missile Range was one of seven military bases selected as a Fiscal Year 2021 Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program Challenge winner.

WSMR will receive $5.6 million for its compatible land protection.

Brian Knight, Environmental Division Chief with the Directorate of Public Works at WSMR, said that making sure that we protect our air space is the most critical.

“We do a lot of low level flight test missions with missiles and with drones and with aircraft, and large vertical structures really would prevent us from being able to do it,” Knight said. He said it is important to keep that air space, the same air space used by Holloman Air Force Base and Kirkland Air Force Base.

“The nice thing about our ACUB Program is that we are not just protecting Army testing and evaluation in that area, it is also protecting Air Force Flight Training. So it is benefiting at least two services.”

The ACUB program addresses encroachment at military installations where land around military installations is rapidly being developed and can compromise military readiness. This includes urban development.

“This award reflects the hard work of Mr. Knight and his amazing team,” said WSMR Garrison Commander Col. Ryan Howell. “They continue to ensure that WSMR is positioned to support current and future test missions. These invaluable efforts will keep WSMR positioned for continued successes in supporting our Nation’s security.”

The REPI Program fosters multi-agency initiatives and collaboration to preserve compatible land uses near military installations and ranges. These efforts preserve and enhance Department of Defense assets and capabilities in support of military readiness through the creation of unique cost-sharing partnerships with state and local governments and private conservation organizations. The REPI Program designed the REPI Challenge to help meet its ambitious goals while also aiming to cultivate projects, achieve benefits, harness the creativity and help the REPI Program meet its goals.

The REPI Challenge distributes funds on an annual basis to one or more projects that provide innovative approaches to protecting the military mission. This annual initiative seeks to cultivate projects that conserve land at a greater scale, thereby helping the REPI Program meet its goals.

This year’s REPI Challenge focused on innovative projects that limit incompatible development, enhance military installation resilience to climate change and extreme weather events, and/or relieve current or anticipated environmental restrictions on military resting, training, or operations at locations hosting key mission capabilities.

Knight said that one of the interesting parts about the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program (ACUB) at WSMR that is different from other ACUB programs is that the other ACUB programs at other installations are focused on trying to buffer around the installation.

“We are very unique in that because of the call up areas and our extension areas here at WSMR, we are protecting from encroachment in actual operational space. We are not just buffering around the installation. We are actually protecting airspace that we use for test and evaluation missions,” Knight said.

The ACUB program allows services to enter into cooperative agreements with eligible entities with state and local government and private conservation and land trust organizations with the purpose of land or natural resource conservation.

ACUB allows agreements with non-profit partners to encumber land to establish buffer areas, protect habitat and species and training without the Army acquiring new land. All parties work on mutual goals of conservation to prevent development in critical areas.

It limits incompatible development and preserves habitat in a manner that may eliminate or relieve current or anticipated environmental restrictions that would or might restrict military training, test, or operations.

At WSMR there is an increased pressure for incompatible commercial development that could compromise critically important current and future training and testing operations.

Knight said their primary goal is to prevent incompatible development. “Of particular concern to us because of the nature of our mission, are tall vertical structures in those call up areas. So we don’t want to have things like wind turbines, large overhead transmission lines, communication towers, and anything that would prevent us from being able to conduct low level flight missions. All of those could be a potential impact to our mission and so we are trying to limit those by doing these conservation easements.”

Knight said WSMR’s project has a multifaceted approach to protect over 300,000 acres surrounding WSMR, with the first phase targeting more than 120,000 acres and will include creating conservation easements over private lands and executing Land Use Restriction of Condition agreements across New Mexico State Trust lands. Preventing development on this land will preserve WSMR’s critical mission capabilities and protect habitat for several wildlife populations in the area.

In FY19 WSMR was also a REPI Challenge winner and was awarded $6 million to use on a private ranch in the western call up area where they were in the process of finalizing a conservation easement on a privately owned property.

This year FY21, WSMR won an additional $5.1 million in order to do a type of easement on New Mexico State trust lands in the northern call up area. In addition to the $5.1 million, WSMR got another $500,000 to make them whole on the project they are trying to execute.

“In this case, our long term goal has to do with about 355,000 acres of New Mexico State trust land in both the northern and western call up area,” Knight said.

Knight said that what WSMR is trying to do is put a type of easement, a Limited Use Restrictions Condition easement, where they are paying the State up front not to issue different kinds of business leases that would have incompatible development that would affect WSMR.

“In that agreement we have a list of what we call our prohibited uses, which the state will not allow, such as wind turbines and large overhead transmissions,” Knight said. “Then we have the unrestrictive uses, which won’t impact our mission in any way, such as grazing, agriculture, recreation, just open range land. Anything like that that won’t affect our mission, they won’t have to seek concurrence from WSMR.”

“Then we have the third category, restrictive uses, these are uses that might have potential to impact our missions. So if the state wants to issue a lease on that piece of property they will have to come and consult with WSMR and our partner the New Mexico Land Conservancy.”

Knight said they hope the FY21 REPI award and the $5.6 million that WSMR was awarded will cover this easement for about 120,000 acres of New Mexico State trust land in the northern call up area.

“This is a big win for us because it is going to give the state revenue and it is going to prevent incompatible development for our missions. So we will be able to continue to use that restricted airspace for low level flight, missile testing and a variety of different weapons systems. It is really a big win win for both of us,” Knight said.

To put it in perspective as far as how big it is in terms of acreage, Knight said that in FY20 the entire history of the REPI Program, which included the Navy and the Air Force, the Army and National Guard, combined, have protected 588,000 acres.

“We are going to do 355,000 just on the state alone and another 313,000 on the private property and the western call up area. So we would have doubled the inventory of the Department of Defense of protected lands on just two projects here at WSMR.”

Knight said they also have a great partner in the New Mexico Land Conservancy. “They are the ones who actually hold the easements. The way the program works is that the REPI program provides the Army money and you have an approved ACUB program like we do at WSMR, then you can get some of those funds and it gets put on a cooperative agreement. Once we agree on a parcel that we want to protect, the New Mexico Land Conservancy can get that money off the cooperative agreement and go do the transaction.”

Knight said it is the job of the New Mexico Land Conservancy to enforce and monitor that easement.

In the case of the ACUB program here at WSMR, the partner has to provide at least a 20 percent match towards any acquisition.

Knight said the 20 percent match can be done a few different ways: It can be in kind, where they basically donate their labor, it could be actual money, or do what their partner does, bargain sales.

“They get the land owner to donate at least 20 percent of the value of their easement to the program. In exchange for doing that the landowner can get state and federal tax credits.”

WSMR’s ACUB program was officially approved by Army Headquarters in 2017 and since that time they have been awarded approximately $26 million towards the program.

“We currently have conservation easements on about 47,000 acres, all on the northern call up area and of that 47,000 acres, one ranch is a 23,000-acre ranch. That is actually the largest acquisition that has ever been done by the Army ACUB Program in terms of acreage,” Knight said.

“Soon we will have an additional 315,000 acres when we close on private properties that we are working on in the western call up area.”

Knight said one of the nice things about WSMR’s program and one of the things that helps WSMR do well when competing for money, is that land values are very low here compared to other installations.

“We get a lot of bang for our buck. We end up getting a lot of acreage for the same amount of money you would spend outside of Fort Hood or somewhere back east on a fraction of that acreage. It is really a benefit for us being in the west and being in the open space here in New Mexico.”